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How Girdwood twins built a life around skiing and beer

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 23
  • Published March 18

Twin brothers Rory, left, and Brett Marenco opened Girdwood Brewing in March 2017. Photographed on March 6, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

If the ideal life requires skiing and beer — and many would say that it obviously does — then Brett and Rory Marenco are heroes of that quest.

The brothers honed their skills as brewers and backcountry powder hounds for years while saving money working during the offseason. Last year, they invested their savings in a brewery in the ski resort town of Girdwood.

We talked while Brett prepared a vat for fermentation.

"There's nothing that says we have to brew this beer today," he said. "We can do it tomorrow if there's a foot of powder. That was part of the plan for brewing in a ski town."

Another part was the ample economic opportunity. After 12 months of operation, Girdwood Brewing is profitable, with eight added employees. Despite Alaska's recession, the equipment is at capacity and the brothers need to expand just to meet demand in an on-site tap room.

"It was kind of a no-brainer," Rory said, from a control panel atop a catwalk. "A resort town with no brewery?"

But the story has more parts. The Marenco brothers have tried many adventures, taken big risks, and studied hard to gain their skills. They also are identical twins, with identical gray beards and bald tops.

They think the same way and anticipate each other's reactions — they agreed on that. Neither leads or follows. They divide up jobs by happenstance, not personality.

Their father, Greg Marenco, said he still can't always tell them apart.

Greg put the boys on skis at 4. They left him behind before their teens, although he was an expert — a ski patroller at Heavenly Mountain Resort, in South Lake Tahoe, California.

Greg contributed a gearhead gene, too, with a career running machinery maintenance in an electronics factory. The brothers attended the University of Utah in Salt Lake to be mechanical engineers.

That's where they learned to brew. A roommate had equipment. At first, they made beer to stretch tight student finances. But soon they sought to improve and eventually studied seriously.

College parties with four taps of free beer running were not the best place to get a sharp critique.

"People would say, 'It's so good.' And we'd say, 'Can you give me something a little more constructive?'" Rory recalled.

Rory Marenco mixes mash. Twin brothers Brett and Rory Marenco opened Girdwood Brewing in March 2017. Photographed on March 6, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

A couple of business ideas came and went before they turned to beer. As a student engineering project, the twins built custom skis, thinking they could become manufacturers.

But in 2005, a college friend from Alaska convinced them to come here. After seeing the immensity of the skiing backcountry, they decided to move. Manufacturing skis in Alaska appeared uneconomic, so they tried professional skiing, making videos of their exploits.

I met the Marencos on a radio show about snowmachine-assisted backcountry skiing. They're well known in that tiny niche. For several years, their videos screened at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium in Anchorage.

The sport suits them, as mechanically minded twin ski bums. For a day of skiing, they take off into mountains from Turnagain Pass, south of Anchorage, or Thompson Pass, near Valdez. Skis ride in brackets on the side of the machine.

Brett and Rory Marenco mount their skis on snowmachines to access the backcountry. (Courtesy Brett Marenco)

Getting up a mountain — especially before they had newer, more powerful snowmachines — meant high-lining ever upward to build a trail. On each ascent they would drive straight up as fast as possible until losing momentum and arcing back down. Each climb rose nearer the top until the trail reached the crest.

They also know how to double the number of runs down the mountain. Both ride upward on a single sled, balancing in tandem on opposite sides. At the top, the snowmachine ghost rides down the mountain — no one driving — while the brothers follow on skis.

After a few years, the brothers started using their engineering degrees in the oil industry. They landed in the same jobs.

Work on the trans-Alaska pipeline put them at similar tasks at different pump stations. One year, they worked with another set of identical twins, in matched teams miles apart. That especially freaked out co-workers, who couldn't figure out how two guys could be in two places at once.

The dream of a brewery came into focus a few years ago, after Rory hurt his back and started to take jumps only in powder, and after he married. He now has two young children.

Friends in Girdwood wanted to invest in a brewery and needed someone to run it. Five partners — the Marencos plus Josh Hegna, Karl McLaughlin and Amy Shimek — put up equal shares, Rory said. The brewery has no debt.

There was risk involved, Rory said, but after so much training and mechanical experience, it wasn't scary.

"I compare it to a day in the backcountry," he said, like skiing a video-worthy line. "From your perspective, that's crazy, but from my perspective, I'm comfortable, because I've been out here."

At first, the Marencos thought they could operate the business in their own, but it took off fast and they realized they had underestimated the work load. Now they employ servers and a person to do merchandising — logo items that bring in 30 percent of their revenue.

Tim Ball was manning the taps the afternoon I came in. He bubbled with enthusiasm selling me on the really good beer and its awards.

Tim Ball serves beer in the taproom at Girdwood Brewing on March 6, 2018. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

Ball traveled America sampling craft beers. He fell in love with Girdwood Brewery and became a bar fly, sitting all day in the post-and-beam tap room, among retired skis and chair-lift seats. Being hired there was too good to be true.

"This is more than a good job," he said. "This is the soft, squishy center of the universe."

With employees covering the front, there can be skiing again for the Marenco brothers. During the first winter of operation, skiing almost wasn't possible. Even now they don't get as many of those long backcountry days as they once did.

Nothing is perfect.

This column has been altered from the originally published version to delete the amount partners invested in the brewery.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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